Last week, I overheard two young white girls gleefully discussing their Halloween costumes and I had to walk away so as to avoid hitting them.
Let me explain. These young (early 20s), Caucasian (very pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, familial lineage rooted in the UK) girls were brainstorming how to most effectively darken their skin for their Halloween looks as “Indians.”
I do not know these girls very well, but we have shared the same space before and I had previously overheard conversations about the family from England and that they were born in Southern California and I know their ages and all of this is important because nowhere in their history has there been an alien abduction or a lobotomy or some other answer to the question “How can they think that darkening their skin to dress up as a caricature of a culture is OK??!”
The girls were devising a multi-layered plan consisting of spray tans covered in “black people’s foundation” and using spray-on hair color to make their blonde locks black. They had already gotten their costumes from Party City and were sooooooo excited to complete their looks with the appropriate makeup. Or inappropriate, as the case may be.
These girls didn’t even have the misguided decency to be dressing up as Pocahontas or Sacagawea, but rather as generic “Indians.” I calmly said to the girls: “Sorry to butt in, but am I understanding correctly that you’re going to paint your skin dark for your Halloween costumes? As…Native American women?”
One fell silent. She’s probably the one of the pair who will eventually become sentient and develop into a fully-formed thinking person one day. The other of the two seemed thrown at first by the phrase “Native American,” but still chirped cheerfully “Totally! Like, almost your color!”
I was in a professional environment and even though I felt a rage inside me that would have been best expressed through use of physical force, I have gotten this far without ever hauling off and punching anyone and I’d like to adhere to that, so I walked away.
Also, as opinionated as I am, I know that I am not an Officer of the World Police, because there is no such organization. But, despite not having Native American roots myself, and though it can be dangerous to take up arms in someone else’s fight when uninvited, I do feel guilty for not having said more. I could have used my words better to express that I found this encounter to be an affront to anyone who objects to Blackface (or Brownface), which is…EVERYONE, RIGHT???
In the moment, I told myself that these two girls do not, and cannot possibly represent the majority of young white women! These girls are an anomaly. There are not really more Aryan-featured white girls in their 20s coloring their skin and spray-painting their hair, especially not anyone who qualifies as a celebrity doing so to attend a big party in Beverly Hills where they will most likely be photographed for public consumption, right?
I wasn’t going to write about the two girls I had met, I really wasn’t. But then I saw the pictures of Julianne Hough in costume as the fictional character Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren from the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The character is a black woman, played by a black woman, Uzo Aduba, who has impressively crafted what I think is the most interesting character on the show despite having less material to work with than others.
But back to Julianne. My first thought was that Ryan Seacrest is a very powerful man, even more so than anyone could have imagined. I don’t usually engage in celebrity dating gossip, but I am aware of reports that their relationship had ended amicably. Perhaps not! Perhaps there was some secret contentiousness and he crafted an elaborate revenge plot wherein he enlisted everyone closest to her; friends, family, confidantes, glam quad, etc. and convinced them all to encourage her when she came to them with her Halloween costume idea.
Surely these kinds of shenanigans do not happen in a vacuum. It was a group costume, after all. Someone in their group was in costume as Pablo Schreiber’s awesomely awful prison guard character, and other ladies dressed as other inmates, none of whom felt the need to also don Blackface.
So this had to be some immaculate revenge, successfully served up cold by Mr. Seacrest, who wasalso at the party. How else to explain the fact that this idea made it past the “Hey guys, you know what would be so cool…….” phase to full execution? How else to explain that even a child could Google Image Search the TV show and pull off a better approximation of Bantu knots (or her knotted ‘do, as most media outlets insisted on calling it, with an implied shrug of the shoulders and an undertone of curious Can I touch your hair-ness that makes me grimace).
Also, despite the show’s title, Crazy Eyes wears a beige uniform, not orange. But who cares about details when you’ve got a party to go to?
If my tone seems glib, it is because this is one way of coping when my cultural identity is used for the amusement of those in positions of privilege. Because it is almost too much to fully take in at times. Because I would rather amuse myself imagining the secret meetings held at Seacrest Manor that led to this abomination than fully accept and embrace that this made sense to this young woman.
And hey -- anyone can have a lapse in judgment. But to think that of all of the many people it took to bring this costume together, no one raised an objection? Or that perhaps someone did but it wasn’t strong enough to overcome the majority view that this is OK?
I have a rule: I can express an opinion without dictating behavior. I now invite you to join me as I break that rule: You can’t wear an ethnicity as a costume. You just can’t.
Of course anyone is free to dress up as any character they please, but if in doing so you trample my sense of humanity, you will hear from me. If, for your amusement, you don any form of dark skin that you can wash off, you are making a mockery of people who cannot wash their skin color off after their proverbial Halloween party is over. People who in many cases have suffered greatly because of that very skin color, for whom life has been no party.
I wonder if it ever occurred to Ms. Hough to simply don the jumpsuit and act the part? To put her blonde hair in better knots and trust that people would recognize the character, especially since she was part of a themed group and wearing a name tag? How cool would it have been if she had memorized the short poem Crazy Eyes wrote on the show and recited it at the party? But maybe that’s too much to ask of an actress.
Three Halloweens ago I went to a big party as Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I love the film and especially relate to Jessica since many people react to the way I am “drawn” before getting to know me. It is an idea I had many years earlier, but in my more fearful youth, I had hesitated because I’m black. Ultimately, I decided to go for it, buoyed by the fact that Jessica Rabbit is not only fictional, but animated. (Fun fact: Jessica Rabbit has no nose. That is intentional; to avoid lawsuits by the estates of any of the Silver Screen legends she is inspired by. The filmmakers have posited brilliantly in interviews that one cannot effectively claim that she is a portrait of any one person when she is missing the central feature of any face.)
The essence of a costume, to me, is recognizability. I made a shimmery dress like hers—I had to make it myself because I’m very tall and store bought dresses wouldn’t have been floor-length. I made no effort to lighten my skin or wear lighter makeup, and I went for the red wig, even taping it over one eye so that it didn’t move. No one was confused as to who I was supposed to be.
Maybe I was being too skittish in my original hesitation, but the psychology of exclusion is powerful. And the thing that finally convinced me I could do it, the thing that people who argue ‘Well then how come it’s OK for black people to_____________’ when faced with racial fuckery perpetrated by a white person will never get, is the issue of power. The marginalized race does not hold the power.
White people have not been systematically damaged by Native Americans. I could have tried harder to explain that to the two girls I encountered. Perhaps someone with more patience than me will, and they will come to see that if being born into a life of racial privilege means maybe this once they’d be better off employing just a smidge of creativity and/or choosing something different from the near-endless possibilities of Halloween costumes, that’s really not such a bad trade-off after all.